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SFGG, Denver Renew Rivalry

Thursday May 21, 2009 in Elite Level Rugby Rugby Super League

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(SFGG enjoyed beating Denver 45-10 March 14. Toni Hensley photo.)

May 21, 2009 – Two teams heavily favored to be in the Super League semis, Denver and SFGG, are meeting expectations this weekend, but at the beginning of the season it didn’t look like Denver would be at the party.

That opening game of the season saw SFGG dismantle Denver 45-10. The Barbarians regrouped, slowly, winning three out of their last four (and losing the other by a point) to make the playoffs. Then they pulled a victory out of somewhere last weekend to make the semis.

Now they get to travel to San Francisco once again, and perhaps put to bed the memories of the March 14 rout.

“Early in the season, first game of the year, we were still working out some combinations,” said Denver hooker Tim Russo. “It took us a while to really get things together. We’ve moved some backs around, and of course Max [de Achaval] coming in has helped. The backline that came together when we played Chicago has been together solidly since then and that’s made a difference.”

Mostly, said Russo, in defense. Beginning with April 18’s win over the Chicago Griffins, the Barbarians are 4-1, and have allowed four tries in those five games.

“Lack of communication on defense was our big problem against Golden Gate, and what we have now is very different,” said Russo. “The backs work together and trust each other. In a lot of ways we’re a different team coming into this game.”

SFGG are a different team, too, in that they don’t have Thretton Palamo, who is off playing 7s with the USA team.

Director of Rugby Paul Keeler said that loss won’t stop them from playing their game.

“One of the things that’s often said about our team is that we’re ‘athletic,’” said Keeler. “That’s said like it’s a detriment, like we don’t have structure or don’t think about how we play. But we’re trying to maximize our abilities and the overall team effort has seen that pay off. I’m not going to apologize for the fact we’ve got props who can make 50-meter breakaways, or we have a forward like Danny La Prevotte who has scored three long-range tries in three weeks.”

The numbers are pretty straightforward. In eight games this season, including last week’s 48-13 defeat of Dallas, SFGG has averaged 46 points scored. That’s because they do have athletes, and they have rugby players. It’s also because they have worked hard on finishing their scoring chances.

“The biggest development has been in our backs where we’ve worked on preventing the opposition from filling the passing lanes when we make a break,” said Keeler. “Defenders scrambling back and get in the way and intercept a pass. We’ve worked on our support players adjusting their running lines so there’s a clear pass for them to take. Players know they need to put themselves in position to receive that pass.”

SFGG has such confidence in their attacking ability that they are likely to run from any point on the field. As Keeler says, the grass is green everywhere.

“We want to combine structure and creativity,” he said.

Structure and creativity came together in New York last week when Denver’s Max de Achaval chipped and chased his way to the winning try with time winding down. Head coach Dave Hodges said his first reaction when de Achaval kicked was one of dismay. Russo said the forwards shared that feeling.

“Basically everybody was thinking ‘what are you doing?’” laughed Russo. “I thought we were controlling the ball pretty well but we weren’t going very far. Max’s chip came and you get that ‘oh my god’ feeling. And then he grabbed the ball and went in under the posts. It was a great win for us. We’d been traveling 12 hours on Friday. It was hot and humid. We’d lost some close games this year and we looked at each other at halftime and said we’re not going to roll over. We kind of got lucky in some ways but we put ourselves in a position to win it late.”

De Achaval’s play was also indicative of how Denver’s emphasis has switched from forwards to forwards and backs.

“For the past couple of years our reputation is we have a dominant forward pack but no one talks about our backs,” Russo said. “But we’re a solid XV out there. We’re less reliant on the pick-and-jam and the forwards taking it on their shoulders. The backs have proved themselves.”

With memories of the blowout in March still fresh, both teams will want to prove themselves – SFGG that is was no anomaly; Denver that it was.

- Alex Goff © www.erugbynews.com

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